Considering that last week's Western Show drew only about half of last year's crowd, there seemed to be a lot of happy noises emanating from its more-subdued floor.
The absence of almost all cable networks left the spotlight on interactive-television companies and other new-media players, in addition to the few programmers that bought exhibit space.
Gone were the celebrities doling out autographs, the loud music and the long lines of blushing autograph seekers wrapped around the adult-network exhibits. Instead, attendees focused on the technology displays and other business at hand.
One of the few celebrities on the floor was Ms. Rodeo California, who signed autographs at The Outdoor Channel booth.
"Being one of the handful of programmers here, our booth clearly stands out in the crowd," said Outdoor Channel CEO Andy Dale.
Added OpenTV Corp. senior vice president Michael Collette: "We're not fighting with [Home Box Office] or Turner [Broadcasting System Inc.] or Viacom [Inc.] for attention. And that, for a technology exhibitor, is good."
Executives from such disparate booth sponsors as The Golf Channel and Pace Micro Technology plc said they found the show conducive for meetings with key clients.
Not everyone put that much of a positive spin on the crowds that didn't come, though. After Hollywood bailed on the 34th annual Western Show, Microsoft Corp., Motorola Corp. and other technology players were among the largest exhibitors.
One of them — Liberate Technologies Inc. — isn't sure whether it'll return in 2002.
"At this point, I'm not committing to the show next year," said Liberate vice president of marketing Charlie Tritschler. "There's a lot of concern about, 'Does this show continue next year?' "
About 17,000 people attended the convention, a 48 percent drop from the almost 33,000 on hand a year ago. The board of the California Cable & Telecommunications Association — which organizes the Western Show — will meet on Feb. 1 to decide the gathering's future.
Revenues from the Western Show comprises 70 percent of the CCTA's operating funds. The trade group took a financial hit from the reduced attendance, including the roughly $500,000 it spent to underwrite the attendance of key MSO executives.
The incentives did spark increased attendance from some MSOs — particularly Cox Communications Inc. and Insight Communications Co. Insight CEO Michael Willner was flanked by more than a dozen of his colleagues as he accepted the advanced-media operator of the year award at The Bandies ceremony on Wednesday night. About 40 Cox executives — including all of its system general managers — came to Anaheim.
"We made commitments around time on the floor; we made commitments around sessions that we would attend," said Cox executive vice president Patrick Esser, who pinch-hit for absent CEO James Robbins on a general-session panel. "There was a business incentive for us to come."
CCTA vice president of industry affairs C.J. Hirschfield called the inducements "an excellent investment. It worked big-time."
Feedback also indicated that the new "participant" category — which was less expensive than buying an exhibitor pass — also worked to draw programmers back to the convention, if not to the show floor.
The attendance shortfall has already caused seven trade association staff layoffs and a 27 percent cut in the CCTA's overall budget, including $200,000 sliced from its lobbying-and-public affairs allocation.
"Right now, we are relatively stable," Hirschfield said.
But CCTA members face the prospect of a dues hike. The organization's dues have been "relatively low" because of the longtime success of the Anaheim meeting, Hirschfield said.
The CableNET Interactive section, which contained small tabletop exhibits from ITV and telephony players, drew some of the strongest interest. But just as grocery stores display milk and other staples farthest from the entrance to steer traffic, CCTA built the CableNET expo in the far-left corner of the exhibit hall, directing attendees to gaze at the wares of other vendors on their way to CableNET.
OpenTV's Collette said he expects the middleware vendor will return next year, but that he'd like to see the CCTA tweak the show. Adding more pavilions like a home-networking area — a strategy used at the National Association of Broadcasters convention — and moving CableNET "right smack in the middle of the place" would be good for the show, Collette said.
Show planners will solicit input from the new show supporters, such as 99 new broadband exhibitors, as well as the old guard, to determine whether the show should continue and in what form.
"We have to look at what this industry is now, and what it's migrating to," Hirschfield said. "Personally, I'm pleased. Given the economy, it was a strong show."
Talk of the potential of subscription video-on-demand dominated the panel sessions, along with discussions on how operators can deploy ITV services through thin-client set-tops they already have deployed, including Motorola's DCT-2000.
Middleware vendors Microsoft, Liberate and OpenTV drew heavy traffic from attendees who could view demos of ITV applications the companies have running in the field. Liberate showed the product it has running on Insight's systems; OpenTV demonstrated the application running on a USA Media Group cable system; and Microsoft displayed products it has running on systems owned by Brazil's Globo Cabo SA, Israel's Matav Cable Systems Media Ltd. and Charter Communications Inc.
The Matav demonstration, which uses technology Microsoft obtained through its Peach Networks acquisition, ran on middleware from OpenTV — its direct competitor.
Liberate announced a commitment from Tele-Media Corp. to deploy ITV services on its systems next year using AT&T Broadband's Headend In The Sky Platform, making it the first HITS affiliate to deploy the product since Liberate and HITS cut a joint deal to sell ITV services in August.
Wink Communications Inc. displayed an application that would allow cable subscribers to vote in elections with a click of their remotes. California Gov. Gray Davis checked out the system in the CableNET expo Thursday morning after addressing a general session.
Davis focused much of his remarks on the impact of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, a topic which also dominated the opening general session last Wednesday. MSNBC anchor Chris Matthews questioned panelists Kay Koplovitz (Broadway Television Network), Trygve Myhren (Myhren Media) and Jeffrey Reiss (TviFusion) for one hour about how the industry has changed since Sept. 11, before shifting to SVOD and other cable-centric topics.
MEET THE NEW BOSSES
Aside from the popular Ted Turner's "oral history" taping for The Cable Center, the most-awaited general session was the one featuring the new CEOs from top cable operators AT&T Broadband (William Schleyer), Time Warner Cable (Glenn Britt) and Charter Communications Inc. (Carl Vogel).
Vogel and Britt easily sidestepped any discussion of potential bids for AT&T Corp.'s cable unit. Vogel got away with merely remarking that Schleyer was "feeling the love, which is a good thing."
During a conversation about whether cable stocks were undervalued, Vogel asked Schleyer how undervalued they were, and Schleyer quipped, "I guess we'll find out."
Otherwise, the three lamented rising programming costs, especially for sports, and said it was time for operators and networks to figure out a way to hold them down. They touted cable's ability to ride out a recession without a spike in customer defections, and extolled the promise of video-on-demand services.
And they predicted that the time it takes for EchoStar Communications Corp. to try to sell its acquisition of DirecTV owner Hughes Electronics Corp. to regulators would give cable a window to roll out the kind of services that could keep customers from churning to satellite.
Overall, most of the talk was on how different the show felt because the programmers weren't there. And not all exhibitors agreed that the attendees coming by were fewer in number but higher on the scale of importance.
Liberate's Tritschler said he saw fewer "tire kickers. The people that do come through are more hard-core." But DST Innovis Inc. senior vice president of strategic marketing and new business sales Bob McKenzie wasn't pleased with the turnout.
"The right people aren't coming to the Western Show, or any show for that matter, but we are committed to the cable industry," the billing vendor executive said.
Cable executives who say you don't have a prayer of cutting deals at the big conventions these days should talk to Trinity Broadcasting Network. Vice president of affiliate sales Robert Higley said an operator from Bermuda cut a carriage deal for the religion channel on Thursday.
Higley said he was surprised when his booth ran out of literature and premiums on Wednesday, but that despite good traffic, he'd consult the few programmers that also exhibited before deciding if TBN will return next year.
"If I see that they're not coming back, we probably won't come back," Higley said. "We'll realize that this is more of a tech show."